The funeral of the dowager Lady Melville was poorly attended—just the rector of the village of Henbury, one or two local gentry, her son Edwin Braxton accompanied by a man who was surely a lawyer, and a handful of villagers.
Alex Redepenning was glad he’d made the effort to come out of his way when he saw the death notice. He and the woman’s younger son, Captain Sir Gervase Melville, had not been close, but they’d been comrades: had fought together in Egypt, Italy, and the Caribbean.
Alex had not expected Melville’s widow to attend her mother-in-law’s funeral, but was surprised at her absence when he went back to the house. Over the meagre offering set out in the drawing room, he asked Melville’s half-brother where she was.
“Poor Eleanor.” Braxton had a way of gnashing his teeth at the end of each phrase, as if he needed to snip the words off before he could stop chewing them.
“She has never been strong, of course, and Mother’s death has quite overset her.” Braxton tapped his head significantly.
Ella? Not strong? She was her doctor father’s assistant in situations that would drive most men into a screaming decline, and had continued working with his successor after his death. She’d followed the army all her life until Melville sent her home—ostensibly for her health, but really so he could chase whores in peace, without her taking loud and potentially uncomfortable exception. Alex smiled at the memory of a stew laced with a potent purge.
Melville swore Ella had been trying to poison him. She assured the commander that if she wanted him poisoned he would be dead, and perhaps the watering of his bowels was the result of a guilty conscience. The commander, conscious that Ella was the closest the company had to a physician, found Ella innocent.
Perhaps it had all caught up with her. Perhaps a flaw in the mind was the reason why she trapped Melville into marriage, why she had not attended Melville’s deathbed though Alex had sent a carriage for her.
“I had hoped to see her,” Alex said. It was not entirely a lie. He’d hoped and feared in equal measure: hoped to find her old before her time and feared the same fierce pull between them he’d been resisting since she was a girl too young for him to decently desire.
“I cannot think it wise,” Braxton said, shaking his head. “No, Major Redepenning. I cannot think it wise. What do you say, Rector? Would it not disturb the balance of my poor sister’s mind if she met Major Redepenning? His association with things better forgotten, you know.”
What was better forgotten? War? Or her poor excuse for a husband? Not that it mattered any more than it mattered that Braxton used the rank Alex no longer held. Alex kept his irritation to himself. It was not Braxton’s fault Alex’s injury had forced him to sell out.
The Rector agreed that Lady Melville should not be disturbed, and Alex was off the hook. “Perhaps you will convey my deepest sympathies and my best wishes to her ladyship,” he said. “I hope you will excuse me if I take my leave. I have a long journey yet to make and would seek my bed.”
Out in front of the house Alex’s curricle waited with his man Jonno Price—stripling boy, rather, barely out of his seventeenth year. Jonno was leaning against a tree at the head of the horses and Alex was nearly up to him before he jerked fully upright.
“Major!” Jonno’s brain woke a second after his tongue, and he corrected himself. “Mr Redepenning, sir. Are we off, then?”
Alex ignored the slip and the stab of regret it caused. “Back to the inn, Jonno. I’d like to make an early start in the morning. There’s heavy weather coming, they were telling me, and if we have to hole up until it is over, I’d rather do it in a decent town than in an inn at the rear end of nowhere.”
“Right you are, sir. Close lot they have here, sir.” Jonno kept up a comfortable patter, sharing what had befallen him outside as he waited for Alex. Jonno’s conversational overtures had been rebuffed, no refreshments had been offered to man or beast, and the household servants had directed Jonno to water for the horses only reluctantly, after a direct request. As Jonno chattered, he put down the modified step that allowed Alex to drag his bad leg up into the curricle with the minimum of help from his man.
Alex let the boy’s words wash over him as he settled into his seat, stifling a groan. Eight hours on the road followed by all this standing around had inflamed his thigh’s constant ache into active knives of pain. Jonno folded away the step and went to leap up, hesitating when he saw Alex in the driver’s seat. The boy’s unconscious ease of movement made Alex’s rebuke sharper than Jonno deserved.
“I can handle the reins. I’m not dead yet.”
Jonno wisely said nothing, though his face spoke for him.
“I don’t drive with my legs, Jonno,” Alex said, trying to sound more conciliatory. With a tired pair of not particularly fine post horses, he was putting less strain on the damned limbs than he would sitting tense beside Jonno fretting about his incapacity. He had a flash of memory: a carriage race in India, every bone and muscle in his body called into glorious service as he and his colonel’s four blood horses swept to victory against the competitors from three other brigades, his own comrades screaming support from every hillock along the track.
Never again. Those days were behind him.
Jonno whistled. “What a beauty!”
The colt paced them in the half light of dusk, whickering at the strange horses on the other side of the stone wall that closed him in, then tired at the lack of response and kicked up his heels, racing off into the gloom.
Jonno and Alex shared a smile. “A fine colt,” Alex observed, “and bidding fair to be a racer, I would say. Are we still on Melville lands? He has the look of Jove’s Lightning, Captain Melville’s old horse.”
“It’s a Melville field, right enough,” Jonno agreed. “That old oak we’re passing? Marks the boundary, they told me in the village. We’ll be back at the inn in a few minutes, sir.”
“He was a beauty, Lightning.” And deserved a better master, but Melville had now gone to a more qualified judge than Alex, and would doubtless be answering for crimes far greater than not appreciating a good horse.
Not appreciating his wife, for one. Alex had been there when she shipped out for England, looking tired and defeated. Her condition, Melville confided. The expectation of a happy event was the reason he gave for sending her home to his mother. Alex had accepted the explanation at the time, and tried to believe a fall accounted for Lady Melville’s black eye. What kind of villain, after all, would beat the woman carrying his child?
No child eventuated. Melville, when asked, admitted that Lady Melville had miscarried, and drank another bottle of whatever rotgut they were selling in whatever dive they had taken over to drown his sorrows, such as they were.
Alex had wondered ever after how much of it was true.
Henbury village and its inn loomed, and with it a flight of stairs. Jonno had secured a bed chamber and sitting room on the first floor, but still it took Alex several minutes and two rests to scale the obstacle.
“Should stay put tomorrow, sir,” Jonno suggested as he wrapped the brick he had left warming on the hearth and handed it to Alex to hold against his thigh.
“No need. A night’s rest will put me right,” Alex insisted, knowing it for a lie. Jonno went through to the bed chamber, muttering something Alex could not quite hear but that undoubtedly encompassed the sentiment: “Stubborn fool.”
The warmth did not bring its usual relief. Alex picked at the supper Jonno insisted on providing and downed two glasses of brandy (his own; the one the inn offered was execrable). Perhaps the brandy would drown the pain enough for him to sleep.
Kerridge was alone when she brought Ella’s evening dose of laudanum. Presumably Constance believed that Ella was still under the influence of the measure forced down her throat this morning and would swallow Kerridge’s without offering a struggle.
Constance was nearly right.
Even though Ella had managed to dribble at least part of what she secreted in her cheeks onto the pillow without Constance noticing, she was still mazed. Another dose would take her under, but Kerridge resented being forced to a task so beneath her dignity as a dresser, and would do no more than make sure the liquid arrived in Ella’s mouth. She would not insist on waiting until Ella swallowed, would not pinch her nose and hold her jaw shut.
Being too meek would be suspicious. Ella turned her head away from the spoon, her teeth clenched shut, but yelped at Kerridge’s sharp pinch and the dresser immediately forced the spoon into Ella’s mouth.
Glaring sullenly, she stopped struggling, and the dresser withdrew the spoon, stretching her thin lips into a smug smile.
“There, Lady Melville. This would go more easily for you if you would just do as you are told,” she said.
She turned to measure a second spoonful, and Ella let the first out of her mouth. The pillow reeked of the pernicious stuff and still had damp patches, though she dried it by the fire at every chance. She accepted the second mouthful without a struggle. Had she swallowed the first, she would be totally compliant by now, and Kerridge did not question her sudden obedience, but picked up the bottle and left the room.
As soon as the key turned in the lock, Ella slid out of bed to find the chamber pot, and spit the remaining laudanum into it. She washed her mouth once, twice, three times. She had ingested a little—enough to further fog her brain, but not enough to douse the sharp flame of purpose. She had to get away. She had to escape. Her brother and sister-in-law were determined to persecute her. They had kept her alive so far but would that continue?
The room moved a little, wavering at the edges, and Ella wanted nothing more than to crawl back onto the bed and let the dreams come. Did it matter, after all? What good did it do to struggle?
No one in this village would help her, as she had discovered when they brought her out to display her before the squire and, on another occasion, the rector. She had been drugged both times, of course. She had been drugged these past four weeks. When she told the visitors, they patted her hand soothingly, looked at her gaolers with sympathy, and went away shaking their heads.
But this evening, standing in the shadow of the curtain peering out at the funeral goers returning to the house, she had seen him. Major Alexander Redepenning. Alex. She had to escape now. Tonight. Perhaps he was just a dream sent by the opium to torture her with hope, but if he were truly here, he would help her.
Alex was a stubborn, opinionated, arrogant fool—and what he had said to her last time they met still scalded her with shame and anger. But he had known her since she was a child, and he would not abandon her to whatever the Braxtons planned.
She could not run away in her shift, but they had left her no clothes. A blanket? She wrapped a blanket around herself against the chill air.
Now to open this window without making a noise… So. One obstacle overcome. She dropped the blanket to the ground below. Now she needed to climb from the second floor, dizzy and confused as she was, walk to the village, and find Alex. He would be staying at the inn, surely? He would not have gone on tonight.
She had heard he’d been injured—watched him descend with difficulty from his curricle, leaning heavily on his groom. He would not travel on tonight. He had to be there at the inn. He had to be willing to help her.
She made it down the ivy without falling, but once she had picked up the blanket and wrapped it around herself, lacked the will to move further. Leaning back against the side of the house, she let the lassitude win and slowly relaxed down the wall until she was sitting on the ground, her head resting against the edge of a window frame.
Inside, a very long way away on the other side of the gentle fog that embraced her, two people were talking. Constance and Edwin. It did not matter. They were silly people. Gervase had not admired his older half-brother; a matter in which he and Ella were in rare accord. The two men shared a mother, but few of the characteristics of that kind, gentle woman. Perhaps each took after their father: her first husband was a merchant, her second a baronet. The baronet’s son was a bullying, often violent rake; the merchant’s, a sanctimonious Puritan—but another bully for all that. Not as much so as his wife.
The bully was bullied. Ella suppressed her giggle. Sssshhh. Mustn’t make a sound. She was running away. Soon. First, she would have a little sleep.
But as she closed her eyes, her own name caught her attention. Constance and Edwin were talking about her? She forced herself to concentrate, to listen.
“No, Mrs Braxton. Eleanor will not convince them she is sane. I have chosen with care, I tell you. I visited six asylums before this one, and this is perfect for our purposes. The doctor in charge has promised to keep her dosed, and even if he does not, the place itself will drive her insane. If you saw it, heard the noise… Yes, my dear, I can assure you, our plans are sound.”
Constance answered, the whine in her voice grating against Ella’s eardrums. “But what if you are wrong, Edwin? If she convinces someone in authority that she is sane, prison will be the least…”
“No, my dove. Not at all. No one at the asylum will listen to her ravings, and if they did, what of it? Who will they tell? Even in the worst case, all we need do is say her mind was turned after Mother’s death and how glad we are that she is well again.”
“I do not know.” The frown was heavy in Constance’s voice. “But we cannot keep her here. I trust Kerridge, but the other servants may start to murmur. Any one of them might have spoken to that lawyer!”
“The lawyer is gone, my love. He was no harder to send away this time than last.”
“It will drive her insane, you say?” Constance asked.
“It will. I guarantee it. I hesitate to mention it, Mrs Braxton, it not being a topic for a lady’s delicate ears…”
“Spit it out, Edwin. What?”
“My own treasure, I am given to understand that the attendants avail themselves of the, er, charms of the patients and even do a– er– trade with the nearby town. Not, of course, with the approval of the medical staff. No, of course. That would be most unprofessional. But it is most enterprising of them and serves our purposes rather well, dear sister being a comely woman.”
Ella puzzled this out. Surely Edwin did not mean that the attendants forced the women and prostituted them?
“Ah. Very good,” Constance said. “The woman is horribly resilient. Any decent gentlewoman would have succumbed to madness long since with all your brother put her through and what has happened since. But surely even she is not coarse enough to withstand multiple rapes.”
“The doctor will be here tomorrow,” Edwin said, with enormous satisfaction. “And she will be safely tucked away where she can do no harm.”
Their voices faded as they moved away, clearly leaving the room since the window went dark.
Fear pierced the fog and drove Ella across the carriageway and into the shrubbery beyond. The soft rain of the past few days had left branches laden with moisture and puddles of mud underfoot. Every part of her not covered by the woollen blanket was soon drenched, but the chill kept her awake, kept her from falling back into the false happiness of the dream.
Every stone and twig bruised her feet. Her soft slippers were not made for outside walking and would be in shreds before she reached the village. At least it was not still raining.
The carriageway turned onto the village road. She kept to the side, ready to hide in the ditch if anyone came. Alone, in her shift, and still dazed from the drug? Being returned to the Braxtons would be the best she could expect from a casual passer-by, and the worst… She shuddered. She had travelled with the army, worked as her father’s assistant, been Gervase Melville’s wife. She knew the worst that could happen to a woman at the mercy of the merciless.
A soft whicker caught her attention. Falcon’s Storm. He was a lighter shape above the hedgerow, stretching his neck to reach his mistress.
“Storm, my sweet, my champion.” Ella stopped to fuss over him for a minute that stretched into a timeless pause, crooning nonsense about having no treats in her pocket for she lacked a pocket. He lipped at her shoulder and her hair, but showed no offence at being denied the expected lump of carrot or apple.
“I missed you, too,” she assured him. “If only you were old enough, dearest, you would carry me away, would you not?”
He was solidly built for a two-year old, but so was she, for a woman. She walked away with a deep sigh. He was the one thing in the world that was solidly, legally, beyond a doubt hers; her only legacy from the swine she had married, born of her mare, Hawk of May, and Gervase’s charger.
But if she took him, how would she feed him? And if they were hunting for a woman and a colt… No, she could not take him with her, and opening the gate to set him loose was also out of consideration. He would follow her, for sure.
She continued on her way, praying that the Braxtons would leave him to the care of old Jake, the groom, or sell him to someone who appreciated him for the future champion he was.
Storm followed her to the corner of his field and called after her until she was out of sight. She was hobbling by then. Even though the cold numbed them, her feet shot pain at her from a thousand bruises and cuts.
Then the rain began again. She pulled an edge of the blanket over her head, which kept off the worst of it, but it still sluiced down her cheeks and brow, gathered on her eyebrows, dripped over her eyes, and streamed down either side of her nose.
She passed the first house in Henbury village, keeping to the shadows. Then a row of cottages. The smithy, silent in the dark night. Another row, this one with shops on the street face and living spaces above.
The inn was ahead, the only building showing lights. She paused in the shelter of the last of the cottages, hiding in the doorway while deciding what to do next. Despite the lateness of the hour, people still came and went from the public room; not many, but one would be enough to destroy her escape.
Above, lights showed in two rooms on the second floor. Surely Alex would not climb the stairs that high? But every room could be full and the occupants asleep. Unlikely in this village off the main way, but possible.
Slowly, thinking out each step carefully, Ella circled the building. The stables were unlit, everyone either asleep or away. She felt her way into the gloom and waited till her eyes adjusted sufficiently to let her creep along the stalls. Six were occupied, one by the innkeeper’s pony, a stout lady named Posy. Alex had a pair, so only three or four guests, then.
Unless others had walked or been delivered. Or unless Alex had moved on and none of these were his. No. She would not, could not believe that.
The best rooms were at the back. Alex… She had no idea of his circumstances now, but he was a lord’s son. Gervase had often complained to her about the privileges Alex expected as his right, because he was well born and wealthy. Jealous nonsense, of course. It was Gervase who wanted special treatment while all the other officers suffered with their men. But Alex was grandson to an earl; that was true enough.
She would follow her hunch and hope her confidence was not born of the laudanum.
Only one light showed above the ground floor at the back of the inn. As she watched, it moved along a window, a shape behind it. A person carrying a candle. And two rooms, by the look. Yes. Six of the rooms on that floor were in pairs and could be used as a bed chamber and a sitting room for the travelling gentry, or as two bed chambers if a cock fight or wool sale brought extra custom to the inn.
Alex would be there, then. Or he would not, and her escape would fail. All Ella had to do was find a way to get inside.